The new mandate of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the new international system that emerged with the end of the Cold War has been the subject of much debate. Some have argued that NATO has lost its raison d’être following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and that the alliance should be disbanded. This idea was not embraced by the main actors of European security, but it pointed to an important problem. NATO is a defense alliance created to counter a common military threat. Therefore, the disappearance of the common threat in the post-Cold War era and the growing importance of non-military dimensions of security created an existential problem for NATO.
The North Atlantic Treaty’s famous Article 5 mandate to respond jointly to common military threats has lost some of its relevance in the post-Cold War era. This is because there are now uncertain threats and allies have adopted various methods on how to deal with these threats, which they perceive differently. These differences of opinion have prevented a consensus on what NATO’s new identity should be. There have even been assertive statements that NATO is brain dead.
The Ukraine War, which started in an environment where NATO’s raison d’être was being questioned, gave NATO a new lease of life by showing that Russia had become a common threat and that its Article 5 mandate was still important. For the first time in the post-Cold War era, the sense of common destiny among NATO allies has become stronger. It is now almost universally accepted that NATO remains the main institutional framework for European security and that this will not change for a long time to come. In this situation, the question of NATO’s role in the face of new trends in the international system is one of the most important questions that awaits an answer.
The Russian-Ukrainian War is a product of the great power struggle in the international system, and NATO enlargement is one of its causes. In this respect, the question of NATO’s readiness to respond to new challenges in the context of the great power struggle in the aftermath of the Russo-Ukrainian War is an important one. Before seeking an answer to this question, it is useful to briefly assess the threats that NATO allies face in the great power struggle.
The most important security challenge facing the Alliance is the military threat from Russia in eastern Europe. These threats have different dimensions. First, Russia as a nuclear power needs to be deterred. The second is the need to prevent Russia from expanding a military conflict like the one in Ukraine into NATO territory, i.e. the need to defend all NATO territory. The third is to prevent Russia from destabilizing border regions or gray areas and interfering in the internal affairs of alliance members, even in the absence of a direct attack on NATO.
Another security challenge NATO faces in the context of the great power struggle is the rise of China. However, the ongoing rivalry with China is more important for NATO in the context of economic/technological struggle rather than posing a direct military threat. Indeed, it is only recently that NATO has addressed relations with China as a security issue. It was pointed out that China is not only building economic dependencies but also creating technological vulnerabilities for allied countries. Thus, China does not pose a military threat to NATO, at least in the short to medium term, but it does create some economic/technological security vulnerabilities.
One of the main challenges is that European defense still relies heavily on the United States. Therefore, the question of burden sharing, which has been discussed frequently in the past, has gained renewed importance today. However, burden sharing is not only a matter of which ally bears how much cost. The issue is evaluated in the context of the alliance’s defense structure as a whole.
First, it must be acknowledged that the United States still plays and will continue to play an important role in European defense. NATO’s deterrence capacity against Russia also derives from the United States. However, in recent years, the US has been building new alliance structures for the Indo-Pacific, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and AUKUS. It is not easy for the United States to fight great powers on two fronts at the same time, pursuing containment and balancing policies. Washington will therefore be more demanding of its European allies to assume more responsibility and increase their military capacity, which will reduce its burden in Europe and allow it to focus on the Indo-Pacific..
The re-election of Donald Trump, or a president with similar views, who looks down on European allies and is extremely reluctant to contribute to Europe’s defense, cannot be ruled out. Such possible scenarios would require the Europeans to increase their own capabilities to defend their territories in a way that substitutes US defense capabilities.
Just as important as burden-sharing is the maintenance of solidarity among NATO members. This is because the military threats currently faced are also manifested through cybersecurity, disinformation, destabilization of NATO’s neighboring geographies, meddling in NATO members’ internal affairs and, as the energy crisis has shown, leveraging various vulnerabilities. Although this sense of solidarity seems to have been achieved with the impact of the Russia-Ukraine War, it will be aimed to be maintained in the future. Allied countries will therefore have to increase their internal resilience against protracted areas of conflict and instability in NATO’s neighborhood.
The threat from China is of a very different nature and NATO’s role against China is limited. One reason for this is geographical distance. European NATO allies are reluctant to project power into the Indo-Pacific region and this is unlikely to change. It would be enough for the European allies to ease the US burden, as it would allow Washington to channel more resources to the Indo-Pacific region. Another reason why NATO’s role vis-à-vis China is limited is that the security challenges with this country are related to vulnerabilities stemming from economic/technological competition. China does not pose a military threat to the Western alliance. Therefore, the US needs the European Union (EU) rather than NATO in its fight against China.
In the ongoing economic/technological competition with China, the EU’s cooperation is important for the US. On the other hand, the alignment between NATO and the EU is also important. European security is not possible without NATO, and the EU’s role is vital for Europe to increase its own defense capabilities. Just as NATO found a new raison d’être in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine War, it is unclear whether the EU will find a new motivation to accelerate integration. However, the growing great power struggle in the international system is pushing the US and the EU towards greater partnership. NATO plays an important role in ensuring the security partnership and coordination between these two actors, and in this respect, it faces the task of rebuilding itself in the face of the great power struggle.
As a result, the more functional NATO is for member states and the more it meets the security needs of allies, the more deterrence and prestige it will gain in the eyes of rival states..